Caring for Firemouth cichlids


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It’s up there as one of the best old school cichlids for the larger community, but did you know it also makes a great breeding project too? Gabor Horvath explains.

We’ve all been there. You set up a community tank, fill it up with mixed populations of various shoaling fish, and it’s only when you sit back to enjoy your ‘completed’ aquarium that you realise something’s missing. You’ve got heaps of movement, the fish are all sparkling, but still the tank seems to lack a focal point. That’s usually the time we start some post-hoc thinking about stocking, and our minds turn to a centrepiece fish. 

In smallish tanks, many aquarists fall back on the tried and tested fillers of dwarf cichlids or diminutive gourami to plug the gaps, being mostly peaceful and (this is the important part) highly visible. But finding the right-sized peaceful equivalent for a more spacious community setup can be problematic. Problematic, that is, until you meet the mild tempered Firemouth cichlids. This is my own story of how I met two related, yet so different, members of the Thorichthys genus.

Keeping it real

My first encounter with the ‘real’ Firemouth cichlid, Thorichthys meeki, happened almost three decades ago, when I was still at university and sharing a dormitory room with two classmates. The limited space (and the reservations of my roommates) allowed me
to have only one aquarium, and after getting a special permission for a fish tank from the dormitory ‘director’ I decided to set it up for medium sized cichlids, plus some livebearers as companions and dither fish. 

Following a long search (there weren’t many fish shops in Hungary in the 90s) I managed to buy two Firemouth cichlids and hoped to form a pair. Back then they were called Cichlasoma meeki, because almost every cichlid from the Central-American region was considered to belong to the Cichlasoma genus at that time. 

Unfortunately, my pair turned out to be two females, so I had to give up any hope of breeding them. Then to my great surprise I found that one of the females had paired up with another ex-Cichlasoma male in the tank – a Convict cichlid, now Amatitlania nigrofasciata. They spawned and raised their young like any other cichlid couple. 

I know many folks frown upon hybridising (as do I now), but as a young aquarist I felt like I’d achieved something special, and not having the Internet to check if anyone else had managed this feat, I started to prepare my speech for the Nobel-prize. After speaking to an expert aquarist who confirmed that it’s not a one-off occasion I was brought back to Earth.

I was curious to see how the offspring would turn out, so I kept ten of them to raise separately, and I managed to smuggle a small tank into the dormitory for the initial growth phase. At around 2cm they had the body shape of their Firemouth mum (complete with pointed nose) and the strong body markings of the Convict father. With no other tanks to move them to, I gave the group to a nearby aquarist. I never heard anything back from him nor saw the juveniles after. 

Gill flaring is a common way to settle territory disputes. 


Fast forward 30 years. During a visit to a friend, I spotted a shoal of young fish resembling ‘my’ hybrids. They looked like proper T. meeki, but with a very dark, almost black body. 

After inquiring about their origin, I learnt that they weren’t hybrids, but a regional variety from the Rio Mamantel, called T. meeki ‘Angeles’. This morph is often sold as the Black firemouth, owing to some individuals — especially females — occasionally having a full black body. These dark females usually have yellowish throat instead of the traditional red. 

I mainly stick with smaller community fish species, but seeing these beauties I couldn’t resist the temptation. I purchased eight juveniles, my usual practice when I plan to breed a certain fish. I find this number increases the chances of having at least one breeding pair from the group. I also find that these self-formed couples are more productive and have stronger bonds than the pairs put together by me. 

While the fish were in a quarantine tank, I prepared their final quarters. Firemouth cichlids occur from Mexico down to Guatemala, where they live in still or slow-moving shallow waters. Their broad distribution brings with it a wide tolerance for environmental conditions, so they could feel at home in most community tanks with slightly acidic to alkaline, medium-hard water; 6.5-8pH and over 6°H. They can be kept at a temperature range between 22-30°C, with 24-27°C appearing optimal for both breeding and longevity. 

I didn’t plan to create a strict biotope tank, but rather something with the essential features for optimal development and breeding. 

Firemouths love digging into the substrate in search for food. The telescopically protruding mouth allows them to suck up particles and sediment when searching for edible morsels, with the inedible pieces then expelled through their gill openings. To support this, I used particularly fine gravel as a substrate. 

Considering the territorial behaviour so characteristic of cichlids, large pieces of bogwood were used to break up the line of sight and divide the tank into smaller living spaces. Anubias mother plants were attached to this wood with their roots forming a loose curtain, and a few coconut shells were added as potential spawning sites. As a finishing touch rosettes of floating Water lettuce, Pistia, were introduced to provide shaded areas. 

As Firemouths can reach quite a modest size (males up to 15cm), a JBL external filter was called uponto keep the water clean. 

To reduce the risk of aggression I always use dither fish in cichlid tanks. The fish I selected here was the Golden variety of the popular molly, Poecilia sphenops. As they live together in the wild, this can also be recommended for a biotope. 

 Males are the main aggressors in border disputes.

Sexual rivalry

My young Firemouths grew quite quickly, and soon I could determine their sexes — out of the eight fish I had two males and six females. This was lucky, as males are usually more troublesome than females. 

Firemouth cichlid

● Scientific name: Thorichthys meeki

● Pronunciation: Thor-ick-thiss mee-kee

● Size: To 13-14cm

● Origin: Central America, Mexico down to Guatemala and Belize

● Habitat: Ranges from shallow streams and cenotes to pools and ditches

● Tank size: 120x30x30cm

● Water requirements: Slightly acidic to alkaline water; 6.0-8.2pH, 6-18°H

● Temperature: 22-30°C

● Temperament: Relatively peaceful larger community species, sometimes territorial with its own

● Feeding: Wholly unfussy, offer flakes, pellets, live and frozen Daphnia, bloodworm

●Availability and cost: Very common, juveniles starting from around £3.50

Sexing juvenile Firemouths is quite difficult, but when reaching breeding size (at around 5-8cm) the males sport dorsal and anal fins with longer filaments. My two males each quickly found a partner and formed their territories, and there’s a certain hierarchy which can be observed from their interactions. Interestingly any hostility ceases during feeding time, only to resume as soon as dinner has been finished. 

Out of the two of my couples, one is the dominant pair; kind of king and queen of the tank. They own the right half of the aquarium, making it a no-go zone for the other pair. Lone females may enter the area, but only when there are no eggs or fry present. Between the territories of the two pairs there lays a demarcation zone. This ‘no fish’s land’ acts as a buffer area, and the members of the two couples regularly patrol it to ensure that the ‘enemy’ doesn’t overstep the borders. 

When that happens, the defending pair launches a warning attack with flaring red throats and fully stretched fins. Usually a tug-of-war follows, with the pairs swimming back and forth in threatening poses. The face-off mainly ends with the sub-dominant pair retreating to their own territory. 

Similar interactions can be observed between the single females, who have their own pecking order. The subordinate fish signals its submission by tilting itself head down and clamping the fins. The winner usually gives a (mostly) gentle headbutt to the side of the subject and then the fish all go on their separate ways. 

One interesting interplay is when a lonely female tries to seduce a male on patrol. She sports her best colours, shaking her body in front of the male and indicating her readiness to spawn. This usually happens when the male’s partner is occupied with eggs or fry (therefore providing no immediate chance for further breeding), and sometimes the male seems to yield, showing interest and beginning to ‘dance’ with the temptress. The atmosphere quickly changes when his partner, noticing the male’s long absence, arrives at the scene leaving the eggs or fry behind. The female attacks the rival female with full fury and the male — recognising his ‘mistake’ — joins the attack, chasing her away. Then the couple returns to their family with the female regularly nudging the side of the unfaithful male with her head.

Firemouths are courageous parents. 

Bringing up baby

If you provide Firemouths with the right environment and a varied diet of live, frozen and quality dried foods you don’t have to wait for long for breeding activity. If you see a separated pair with a female showing extended genital papilla you will know that the spawning is imminent. 

I found that — in contrast to many flat-stone egg layer species — my Firemouths prefer to lay their eggs onto near vertical surfaces, like the inside of a coconut shell or the side of the internal filter. Larger flowerpots are utilised, too. 

The pair carefully cleans the selected area then the female lays a few eggs in a row which are then fertilised by the male. This is repeated several times until all the eggs are laid.

After spawning, both parents take part in the care, and usually the female takes responsibility for looking after the eggs while the male patrols the borders. From time to time, they swap roles and daddy-care is called upon for short periods while mum searches for some food for herself. 

This change of guard has its own ritual, with the couple giving various body and fin signals to each other, confirming their bonds. After three days the pair relocates the fry to a well-protected pit dug in the substrate, taking turn in carrying the hatchlings in their mouths. 

The young stay there for another three days before they’re ready to swarm out. The pair keeps guarding the free-swimming fry from the other inhabitants of the aquarium, launching full flare attacks if they get too close to the shoal of juveniles. 

In smaller aquariums (less than 80cm) ‘close’ could conceivably mean the whole tank, so any tankmate could be in danger. 

Eggs will be laid on flat surfaces.

The juveniles are also controlled by body and fin signals, which they understand well — a quick body shake from the female is enough to send the fry into hiding mode and they all duck down to the substrate in unison. When the danger is over another signal from mum follows and the juveniles continue their grazing. 

As they grow, some of the fry begin to disobey these orders, causing frustration for their parents. This can cause disarray and could end family peace — especially in a busy community tank — resulting in either the pair eating their fry or just simply neglecting them. In a densely planted tank, some of the fry can survive, but if the intention is raising the juveniles this is the point when the aquarist should intervene. 

I usually siphon out about two-thirds of the young fish to a separate aquarium where I can properly look after them more closely. 

As even the newly hatched fry can feed on microworms and Artemia nauplii, raising them isn’t an issue. Giving them enough room is, however — make sure you have suitable raising tanks before attempting to breed Firemouths because a single spawning could yield a couple of hundred fry! 

Another issue is rehousing, so unless you have a guaranteed outlet that you can sell your fish to, don’t keep all the fry. If you just want to enjoy raising this species then a dozen or so fry could give you the satisfaction without too much worry about rehoming the excess. I find them especially hardy, so with proper housekeeping you shouldn’t expect any losses.

Ensure you have an outlet if you’re breeding Firemouths.

The ‘other’ Firemouth

My story with another Thorichtys species, the Ellioti cichlid, T. maculipinnis, is somewhat shorter. I have recently acquired them after receiving a desperate call from a local aquarist asking me if I could rehome two fish causing havoc in her fish tank. 

The pair, but especially the male, destroyed several newly added cichlids (including a few Heros severus and Vieja synspila) and bullied even the huge Fire eels and Weather loaches there. When attending the scene, I was amazed to see the size of the male: it was the biggest of its kind I have ever seen, exceeding 12cm SL! 

At home they were temporarily housed in an 80 litre quarantine tank. After three days of chasing (the male kept bullying the female) they decided to bury the hatchet and laid a batch of eggs onto the internal filter. 

The female took full responsibility for them and fiercely protected the eggs even from the male. Her dominance lasted right up until the fry were around. 

Unfortunately, a few days after hatching they all disappeared (likely it was too much stress for the female and she ate them) and the male took charge of the fish tank again. This time his aggression was amplified to the extreme, to the extent that I had to remove the female to avoid serious injuries. By contrast, I have never seen such aggression with the T. meeki, as their disputes have never caused any harm. 

After the quarantine period ended, I moved the pair to my large community tank, with plenty of plants and hiding places. 

They have been sharing it with fully grown Golden barbs, Barbodes semifasciolatus, Madagascar rainbows, Bedotia madagascariensis, and a pair of Hoplo-catfish, Megalechis thoracata, without any issues since. 

The male still keeps chasing the female, but she can easily hide herself away when needed. He leaves the other fish in the tank alone, as they’re not considered to be competitors (like the Vieja cichlids he used to be housed with) nor a threat (like the Fire eels). 

This leads us to the decisive question of whether Firemouths are good community fish or not. The answer is that it depends. I wouldn’t add them to mixed cichlids tanks, especially those without proper hiding places, alongside aggressive species. If they grow up together, they may get along well, but adding any new fish to the established mix could lead to disaster. 

I would also avoid Firemouths in tanks with rooted-plants, as with their continuous digging they could destroy the landscape. But in the right sized setup (meaning over 120cm length), with the right tankmates (like medium sized barbs, livebearers or tetras) they could be the centrepiece you’re missing, giving you hours of enjoyment.